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Charter Schools Advisory Board approves virtual school’s request to change management

The Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB) approved a recommendation to the State Board of Education on Monday that would allow one of the state’s two virtual charter schools to change its management. NC Connections Academy, which is part of a pilot of two schools and offers online education to more than 2,400 students, requested to change its management from Pearson OBL to North Carolina for Quality Virtual Education (NCQVE) due to disputes over day-to-day management. NCQVE is a formal name for the virtual school’s Board of Directors. 

After CSAB deferred the decision to the State Board without a recommendation, the State Board decided to drop the decision back down to CSAB during its last meeting. Though the recommendation was approved unanimously at the start of this week, multiple members said they have serious concerns about the switch in management, the composition of the board, and the pilot overall. 

CSAB member Bruce Friend said despite his concerns about the school board moving away from Pearson, he does not see it to be the board’s responsibility to dictate what management a school board chooses. If CSAB declined the school’s request, the school would have lost its charter, forcing thousands of students to find another option.

“This is a really difficult decision for sure, and I keep thinking about those students and the families above everything else,” Friend said. “I don’t know that I see the role of CSAB as being an organization that should require a board to have a CMO (charter management organization) or keep a CMO if they’re not happy with it … I think that’s the responsibilities of boards to make those decisions. At the same time, before us is: Do we feel that this board, as currently constituted, can make this transition that they’re trying to make away from, let’s be honest, one of the most experienced and proven EMOs (educational management organization) in this space, the virtual schools? That’s a really heavy lift, and if I answer the first question, ‘No, I don’t think it’s our role to dictate to a board that they must have or keep a CMO/EMO that they’re not pleased with,’ the answer to my second question is, ‘I’m not sure.'” 

CSAB Vice Chair Steven Walker made the motion to approve the recommendation and outlined two stipulations. First, at least one member of the board must attend and present an update at every regular CSAB meeting until CSAB “determines the things are well under control,” Walker said. He said this stipulation is included “so that we can keep kind of a grasp on what’s going on with the school and things like enrollment, vendor agreements, things like that.” Second, NCQVE must submit any documentation the Office of Charter Schools requests. 

CSAB Chair Alex Quigley echoed concerns from members about the change in management and thanked Pearson for the work they do across the state. 

“I think had the presentation that we had last month been an application, I don’t think I would have approved it,” Quigley said. “That being said, that’s not the decision that we’re being asked to make.”

Quigley said he thinks the board should have an opportunity to change direction and see if student performance improves. NC Connections Academy has received a “D” and has not met expected student growth standards in the state’s school grading system each of the last three years. The same has been true for the other virtual charter school, NC Virtual Academy.

“We give charters to the Board of Directors,” Quigley said. “And even though this Board of Directors has changed somewhat and I think they have some work that they need to do both from a governance and operational standpoint to take on what they’re asking to take on, I’m kind of of the mind, ‘Hey, you haven’t been making growth, the data hasn’t been good.’ They’re saying, ‘The plan we kind of were working isn’t really working, we’re trying to change it.’ So, okay, change it. If you can change it and make it better, make it better. If you can’t, you’re not going to have a charter certainly for not more than four more years.”

Quigley said there are broader concerns to consider about both schools in the pilot. Last year, the legislature extended the pilot another four years to last until the 2022-23 school year. 

“I think that’s a question we have to ask about both of our virtual public schools, because they’re not making growth,” he said. “I think there are hard questions to ask in general about the pilot as it kind of moves into its second phase.”

Quigley ended his remarks with a reminder that CSAB will be monitoring the school closely.

“We’re giving you that opportunity, but we’re going to be very much closely watching how it’s executed,” he said. “You’re under a microscope, and that’s something to take to heart.”

Learn more about the State Board meeting where this decision was given back to CSAB.

You can listen to Monday’s entire CSAB meeting here. The discussion on NC Connections Academy starts around 58:15.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.